ORANGEBURG — The temperature had already soared to near 90 late Thursday morning and this was just a team practice for NYCFC’s Saturday night road match against Philadelphia. But Stephen Turnbull was in a sweaty slice of paradise.
There he was back on defense at Etihad City Football Academy, heading a ball out of harm’s way. Then there he was attacking from fullback, sending a cross from the right wing for a shot.
There was a 25-year-old defender from Holtsville who had made it in soccer, going from the fields of Long Island to the converted pitch at Yankee Stadium and beyond in MLS.
Turnbull, the alum from the South Huntington Lightning club team, Sachem East and Stony Brook, has been a rotating starter at right back in his first season as a member of NYCFC after spending 2022 with the inaugural NYCFC II team in MLS NEXT Pro. He’s just the third player from Long Island in the franchise’s nine-year history.
Right now, whether it’s training or playing, this is all a slice of paradise for him.
“It’s been a long journey for me to get to this point, so it definitely feels rewarding to be here,” Turnbull said. “It’s just a great style of life for me — come here, train, beautiful facility, wonderful club. All those things about it make everything so much better.”
So what would be the perfect way to describe his story?
“I would just say it’s kind of like an underdog story for me, to be honest, my whole life,” Turnbull said.
“Didn’t really have any academies close to where I lived. So I just started in club soccer. Wasn’t heavily recruited. Ended up going to Stony Brook. We struggled a little bit playing-wise and winning games and getting to the NCAA Tournament. All those things that the bigger schools were doing, we struggled with a bit.
“So it made it a lot harder for me when I came out of college to just turn pro right away. I didn’t enter the draft. I wasn’t drafted to an MLS team.”
After finishing his 2016-21 run at Stony Brook — which was spent as an outside back and a midfielder, and included a season missed due to illness and another shortened by a fractured fibula — Turnbull signed with New York Red Bulls II. That lasted a little more than a month before they parted ways.
The former Sachem East all-county center midfielder kept training and got invited to a winter combine for NYCFC II. He impressed and was signed.
And he kept impressing as a hard worker and as an attacking fullback, delivering five goals and four assists. He often got to train with NYCFC and was even called up for a September game, although he didn’t play.
He spent this past preseason with NYCFC and was disappointed when there wasn’t roster space for him. But because of injuries, he got summoned from NYCFC II early on via short-term loans and subbed in for two games.
Then NYCFC announced on April 7 that Turnbull had signed a “First Team” contract for the rest of 2023 with options for 2024 and 2025. He was a walking, talking advertisement for the development program as the first from NYCFC II to graduate to the MLS team.
“I was a little in shock,” Turnbull said. “… It was just a really good feeling. It felt like I finally got what I really set out to accomplish.”
It meant a lot to his Stony Brook coach, too.
“To see him grow through college to then go on and get an opportunity to play in the MLS, where you have all these national team, highly recruited players that don’t get that chance, that to me is something that I really enjoy,” Ryan Anatol said.
Anatol brought the Seawolves to the Bronx for an April game. Turnbull didn’t get to play, although he met with them.
But in a 3-1 home loss to FC Cincinnati on May 31, Turnbull played among the starting XI for the first time.
“To get my first start at home at Yankee Stadium was a real special moment for me,” he said.
Turnbull is appreciative that Anatol made his Seawolves time “a really good chapter in my life” and keeps in touch. He knew Anatol would want to be there for his starting debut and called him that morning.
Anatol indeed came and sat with Turnbull’s parents, Tim and Dawn.
“It was awesome,” Anatol said.
After that game, Turnbull started four more and subbed in for four before Saturday night. NYCFC, which carried a 5-7-11 record, went 1-0-7, yielding just six goals.
“I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s applied himself and the progress that he’s made,” coach Nick Cushing said. “… In difficult moments, he can keep his focus. ... He’s worked really hard on the physical side of his game. He’s a really fit guy. He’s strong … He’s a good defender.”
And he’s a good storyteller and “comedian,” according to his teammate and good friend from New Jersey, defender Kevin O’Toole.
“Sometimes on away games, we’ll just sit in his room and chill and he’ll have 20-, 30-minute stories that he tells,” O’Toole said. “He’ll just have me on my (butt) laughing. Just (about) life, soccer. He’s got some good wisdom to impart, many experiences out on Long Island. We joke with his Long Island accent all the time.”
So now that one of Long Island’s own has made it to MLS, the question becomes: What’s his end goal?
“Obviously, if I had offers to go play in Europe that would definitely be something that I would consider and weigh my options at that point,” Turnbull said. “But as of right now, at this point in my life, I’m just really happy to be here with this club. That’s my ultimate goal, just to continue to develop here with this club and have a good career in MLS.”